In a recent video, I stated that all women’s and gender studies programs should be closed down as quickly as possible. It’s a provocative assertion, I guess. In Canada alone, there are 66 Gender and Women’s Studies departments, programs, course offerings, and institutes, according to a list compiled by the Association for Academic Women’s Studies in 2013. Gender studies courses are offered in all ten provinces and one Canadian territory, and the programs employ hundreds of professors in both part-time and full-time positions, and grant thousands of degrees and certificates. They range from
small one-year Certificate programs all the way up to Master’s degrees and PhDs.
That’s a lot of programs to slash, a lot of students who won’t get their degrees, and a profusion of professors to put out of work. Still, I am serious in my statement that these programs have no more place at a university than Voodoo or Yogic Flying, and I’m sure most of you know why I think so—because these courses are not about knowledge.
They are about theories of oppression and resistance, often a range of different kinds of feminist, Marxist, queer, post-colonial, eco-critical other theories. Of course theories are used all the time in academic research and writing, but their purpose in legitimate disciplines is to be tested. Feminist theories are not tested in that sense except by other feminist or related theories; they are almost never compared with non-feminist theories. The fundamental tenets of feminism are not up for debate; they are simply presented as truth to be learned and applied.
I know this from first-hand experience; I spent years studying feminist theory as an undergraduate and then graduate student, years I could have spent studying something real. I learned things that are untrue, about gender as a social construct and about the deep-rooted misogyny of patriarchal culture, and it took years to unlearn them. That hundreds of thousands of students across North America still learn these untruths—that they will likely continue learning them well into the future—is staggering.
For a good example of what I mean, let’s take a quick glance at the reading material for the foundational first-year course in the prestigious gender studies program at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, BC, staffed by ten full-time professors and a number of part-timers. The course is called “Gender, Race, Sex, and Power,” and it bills itself as an introduction to “intersectional feminist scholarship and debate.” The required reading on the subject of gender is a chapter called “Introduction to Gender,” from a textbook titled Language and Gender by Penelope Eckert and Sally McConnell-Ginet. The book is now published, but the link in the course syllabus is to a pre-publication version of the chapter. It’s about 35 pages long.
You will likely not be surprised to learn that the authors of this text adhere to the theory that gender is a social construct, telling us in the opening pages of the chapter that “the very definition of the biological categories male and female, […] is ultimately social.” Well, given that anything humans do in language is ultimately dependent on society, of course the labels male and female are in that sense social. But Eckert and McConnell-Ginet mean far more than that.
Eckert and McConnell-Ginet mean that gender is something we “perform,” (a very popular word in gender discourse today) and they assert that “Labeling someone a man or a woman is a social decision’ [i.e. it has no natural basis that pre-exists language]. Everything in the chapter follows from this key tenet of feminist thought, and what we find throughout is a consistent downplaying or outright denial of natural differences in male-female development.
Eckert and McConnell-Ginet chronicle the so-called scripting of masculine and feminine identities from the time of infancy to adulthood—that ungendered infants are made into boys and girls by conditioning and modeling, always with the implication that they could be and should be reconditioned, remodeled. They have a section on what they call the manufacturing of heterosexual desire, which is also not natural, they tell us, but “highly structured and learned” through “dominant socially endorsed images” (17). Just as a side-bar, this is really a fascinating feature of contemporary feminist discourse, this insistence that heterosexuality is manufactured, that there’s nothing natural about it, that women don’t really desire men, they just learn to do so because they are bombarded with images of heterosexual desire. The authors also discuss the supposed devaluing of the feminine in culture (boy activities are more highly valued, they allege, and girls are told that they can’t be astronauts when they grow up because they’re girls, that’s an example they use). Another section emphasizes the pervasive inequities that work against women in everything from household chores to the order in which men and women tend to be mentioned in sentences. This is all standard feminist propaganda about the nefarious gender order in which women always get the short end of the stick.
What is especially notable about the chapter, perhaps, is that it gives no indication that feminist claims about gender are in any way contentious.
Students aren’t made aware of the hundreds of studies that have revealed hormonal and physiological differences between men and women; they’re not even really told that there is a debate on the matter, or that trained scientists might have an understanding of sex difference that a person without scientific training needs at least to respect. In fact, readers are given the opposite impression: that the social constructionists have the far more sophisticated case. It is presented as fact that “Gender is the […] process of creating a dichotomy [between male and female] by effacing similarity and elaborating on difference, and where there are biological differences, these differences are exaggerated and extended in the service of constructing gender.” In other words, the authors admit that there may be some biological basis to sex difference but they assert that it is significantly exaggerated by both researchers and popular commentators.
The authors do cite some few scientific studies to support their position, but no student reading the chapter and being introduced to the idea of gender would have any idea that a majority of scientists have come in good faith to the opposite view of the physiological and biological basis of gender. For a compendious summation of hundreds of studies of sex difference, supporting the natural basis of male-female difference, see Steven Rhoads’ book Taking Sex Differences Seriously.
What is most shocking in the feminist introduction to gender is the strong suggestion by Eckert and McConnell-Ginet that any researcher who focuses on evolutionary and hormonal differences between men and women—is corrupt: We are told, for example, that everyone from scientists to journalists to the reading public has an insatiable appetite for sensationalist gender news, silly us: they say “Any results that might support physiological differences are readily snatched up and combined with any variety of gender stereotypes in some often quite fantastic leaps of logic. And the products of these leaps can in turn feed directly into social, and particularly into educational policy, with arguments that gender equity in such “left-brain areas” as mathematics and engineering is impossible.” The authors of the chapter give no examples of these “fantastic leaps of logic,” but the statement tells students in no uncertain terms that whenever they encounter a claim about natural differences between male and female, they can reliably shut their minds to it; they can be sure that “gender stereotypes” and “fantastic leaps of logic” are at work in biased, ideologically-driven individuals, probably misogynists who want to prevent women from achieving what they’re capable of in mathematics and engineering. It is never admitted that the authors of this chapter, who are not scientists—in fact, they are both linguists—might themselves be choosing their examples and studies with a predetermined end in view.
Every page in this tendentious feminist chapter contains a plethora of misdirection, over-simplification, suppression of contrary evidence, and over-generalization, if not outright falsification. The focus is always on the hardships and sufferings of girls and women to the exclusion of equal and often far greater hardships and suffering of boys and men. This chapter spends some space discussing the pre-adolescent crisis of confidence that is commonly assumed to manifest in girls at school, making the point that the crisis itself may be a social construct based on ideas about normative femininity; it makes this point by contrasting studies of white girls with evidence for the greater self-assertion and autonomy apparently shown by black girls at the same point in their lives. Nothing at all is said about boys’ problems, black or white, with a school system staffed mainly by women who see natural boy behavior as a problem—even though a major feminist scholar, Christina Hoff Sommers, has written extensively about this issue. Eckert and McConnell-Ginet also point us to evidence of built-in cultural bias in the phrase “husband and wife” but not “wife and husband.” This is supposedly proof of the patriarchal prioritizing of the male, but they don’t mention the rampant prioritizing of the female in news reporting such that when boys and men are killed or injured, they are referred to generically as people killed; while when girls and women are killed, their sex is identified to focus public compassion and horror.
Obviously a discussion of the boy crisis in education or linguistic evidence of the valuing of female life over male life would complicate the neat story of female grievance these scholars are elaborating. On every major facet of gender knowledge, this chapter opts for feminist orthodoxy over honest discussion, and there is nothing to offset its misleading emphasis in the rest of the course syllabus, which consists mainly of pop culture texts and other theoretical statements. As the most substantial reading on gender in the course, the chapter is entirely inadequate, distorting students’ understanding by telling them not only that feminist gender fantasies are true but also that scientific facts about sex difference are false. Again, I have to say that although I’ve known for a long time that this material is being taught in gender studies courses, looking closely at it again leaves me flabbergasted.
I do not deny that there are smart people teaching in these programs and doing some valuable work; some of it isn’t about man-hatred: but in the main, the programs teach a warped view of the world.
Someone might say “ah, Fiamengo, you’re an anti-feminist, so of course you don’t like what is being taught in these courses. Your ideological opposition is no more legitimate than their ideological advocacy.” In my next three videos, I want to provide more specifics about why the vast majority of feminist courses can’t be defended on any grounds, even if you happen to think that some of their content is justified. As I said, I’ve had friends and people I admire teach courses for women’s studies programs. Nonetheless, there are non-ideological reasons why these programs should not exist. The money being spent on them—on programs that mis-educate our youth and contribute to the rot that pervades our justice system, our social services, and our media—is money that could be far better spent on real academic subjects that do not harm and actually benefit society.